Natasha Marrian Political editor: Business Day
Senzo Mchunu
Senzo Mchunu

As I pull an ANC provincial chairman aside for an interview he says: "You are stressed, I can see it in your face." "You look worse," I laugh.

He is supporting Cyril Ramaphosa for the ANC presidency. It is the second day of the ANC’s 54th national conference and the so-important party credentials or attendance register has just been adopted.

My anxiety is wrought by deadlines, frustration over the media’s isolation from ANC delegates for the first time — in the past we were able to interact with them, talk about the weather and the food, interact as humans. This time the media were gated in a corner.

His anxiety was over the election race and whether his man would win. But he is mum about why his optimism over Ramaphosa’s chances has dimmed.

Something is up. I wrap up my interview and hit the phone.

It emerges that Ramaphosa’s backers have 397 delegates from Mpumalanga "quarantined" — they had committed to voting for him. But the Dlamini-Zuma faction has begun calling these delegates one by one and it is unclear if they’ve switched sides. This explains the Ramaphosa man’s anxiety. While there are critical battles being fought on the conference floor, the behind-the-scenes fights and lobbying are perhaps more important.

In the end Mpumalanga came through for Ramaphosa and the Dlamini-Zuma camp saw this as a betrayal by provincial chairman David Mabuza, who was rewarded with the deputy presidency for his troubles.

On the conference floor, the battle over credentials went by surprisingly quickly, even though it was tense.

The next fight was over constitutional amendments — whether or not to have two deputy secretaries-general instead of one (the Dlamini-Zuma team pushed for two). Their loss on this issue, or "withdrawal" as they put it, was the first indication that Ramaphosa would win; it provided a smidgen of evidence in an extremely tight race marked by intense propaganda, particularly from the Dlamini-Zuma side.

When 68 quarantined votes were eventually counted, Magashule’s victory was not overturned

Delegates then voted in a long and tense process. By midafternoon on Monday, I began receiving elated messages from the Ramaphosa camp on the one hand and dejected ramblings from the other side — one was kind enough to send me her "acceptance speech", with a warning that the rumour of a Ramaphosa win was "white monopoly capital spin".

Ace’s odd emergence

The announcement of his victory just after 7pm confirmed my sense that he’d won, but I was blindsided by something else — the emergence of Ace Magashule as secretary-general. I did not see that one coming, and besides, he had twice been caught by the courts fiddling in his own, Free State, province’s election and here he was, elected to run elections for the mother body. The Gupta-linked, Free State chairman-since-1992, whose provincial finances are in a mess, now elected to run Luthuli House? It could not be.

I hit the phones again; was there something amiss?

There was. I was told the Ramaphosa-aligned Senzo Mchunu had been a shoo-in for that post. On the conference floor, as the announcement was being made, Mchunu was already being hoisted onto the shoulders of KwaZulu Natal delegates, so convinced were they that he had it in the bag. They gently set him down as Magashule went up to the stage.

Back in the media centre, messages flooded in from sources in the Ramaphosa camp after I asked: "What happened to Senzo?"

There followed a furious behind-the-scenes battle over whether 68 votes, which were set aside and not counted, would be added to the tally and cause Magashule’s election to be rescinded.

This ANC national conference at least delivered on its promise — it was a nail-biter all the way.

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